Oahu is Hawaii’s most visited island and it has so much more to offer than the high-rise resorts of Waikiki along the island’s south coast.
Sure the big winter waves on Oahu’s North Shore have a huge reputation in the professional surfing world but there are also many and varied outdoor experiences all over the island for the rest of us mere mortals.
Here is a guide to the best natural adventures. Oahu is actually bigger than you might think and quite mountainous so it is best to group your experiences in the four quadrants of the compass.
Oahu’s West Coast (Leeward side)
Just six of us are cruising down the west coast of Oahu on one of marine biologist Tori Cullen’s Wild Side specialty cruises.
“Ready to go?” she shouts and we slip off the back of the 34-foot motor catamaran Alakai and merge into the dolphin highway. We had been watching a pod of about 300 spinner dolphins cruising beside the boat and now it was time to see if they wanted to play.
They sure did. For the next 20 minutes they zipped under, beside and around us and did their signature spinning leaps high into the air. If I didn’t have a snorkel on, I’d be laughing.
Over the next three hours we also see pilot whales and Pacific bottlenose dolphins and, in the water again, we watch half a dozen Hawaiian green sea turtles having their shells cleaned by surgeon fish and cleaner wrasse in one of those marvelous marine symbiotic relationships.
Tori explains these and other fascinating facts about Hawaii’s sea life as we feast on homemade chicken salad sandwiches, macadamia nut cookies and fresh pineapple and toast our good fortune.
Oahu’s South Coast
On the south coast start your day before dawn to try and avoid the crowds climbing Oahu’s famed Diamond Head. The hike involves about 175 steps on two sets of stairs but the rewards are stunning views of Waikiki as well as a peak at the tuff crater which is called Leahi or ‘brow of the tuna” in Hawaiian.
You must also follow in the wake of trailblazing Hawaiian surfer, Duke Kahanamoku, and take a surfing or stand-up paddle boarding lesson at Waikiki where the waves are generally manageable and the setting is pretty special.
Oahu’s East Coast (Windward side)
Now it’s time to head to the East Coast, which the locals call the windward side of Oahu. The drive around the southeast coast is spectacular, wild and deserted with mountains descending to the sea.
First stop is Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, which is an almost circular bay within a drowned volcanic cone. You can rent snorkelling gear here to see Hawaii’s green sea turtles as well as an abundance of tropical parrot, trumpet, and angel fish.
A little further along the coastline is a lovely 3.2 kilometre hike to Makapu’u Point Lighthouse. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the islands of Moloka’i and Lana’i and, by the red-roofed white lighthouse, vistas of the entire east coast as far as Kailua and Olomana Peak. If you are here during the whale migration season from November to May you may also see humpback whales breaching.
Heading north, there are a number of beaches along the east coast that are popular for their white sands and small consistent shore breaks which are perfect for swimmers and beginner surfers. These include Waimanalo Beach, Bellows Beach and Kailua Beach.
Waimanalo is the heart of ‘old Hawaii’ where you might see houses flying the red, green and yellow Hawaiian sovereignty flag. You may even hear the popular Hawaiian song Waimanalo Blues on the radio, a lament for the old, paved-over Hawaii.
The pretty beach community of Kailua is US President Barack Obama country and the place he brings his family every summer. We love the community feel at the beach with families cheering their kids during outrigger canoe races.
As you continue north along the coast the landscape becomes lusher and greener with large wetlands, streams and Hawaiian fish ponds. One must-do adventure is to take a two-hour trip with Nakoa Prejean of Hawaiian Ocean Adventures on a traditional ocean sailing canoe. Everyone joins in paddling around the island of Mokoli’i, or Chinaman’s Hat, and you learn about how sailing canoes brought the first Hawaiians here from the Marquesas. There’s also time for snorkelling with honu, or green sea turtles, at Mokoli’i.
Close by is Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000 acre working cattle ranch which was first established in 1850. It is now geared to preserving a landscape that the ancient Hawaiians cherished as one of the most sacred places on Oahu. It is also the location for a slew of famous movies and TV shows including Jurassic Park, Godzilla and Lost. There are a host of adventures on offer here including horseback and ATV tours to see the movie sites and spectacular landscapes as well as a boat ride across one of Hawaii’s most well preserved fishponds followed by an exploration of some magnificent tropical gardens.
As you head towards the northeast tip of the island, make a delicious stop at Kahuku Farms for farm-harvested vanilla bean ice cream, tangy lilikoi sorbet or thirst-quenching fruit smoothies and mango iced tea. If you are there on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, you can also take a tractor-pulled wagon ride through one of Oahu’s most beautiful farms to learn about its history and the crops grown here.
Oahu’s North Shore
At the physical and emotional center of the North Shore, the funky little town of Haleiwa is often described as the surfing capital of the world.
Hawaiian for House of the Frigate Bird, it started life in the early 1900s as a service town for the surrounding sugar plantations. Today its architectural heritage is strictly preserved so that now even McDonalds is disguised in a shack. This is a laid-back place of surf shops, retro diners, shave ice stands, and boutiques selling shell jewelry and bone art.
Don’t spend all your time in town, however, for the real attraction is the coastline to the east, often coined “the eight mile miracle,” with iconic surf breaks at Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay blazed into every serious surfer’s subconscious. Each winter, swells generated in the North Pacific Ocean deliver monstrous, magnificent and often extremely dangerous waves to the North Shore. Be warned, this is pro territory, and even the pros have been killed trying to ride them.
Take Waimea Bay, for instance. In summer, the deep blue water is velvety and as flat as a sheet of glass. I swim here surrounded by schools of flying fish scooting over the surface and am amazed at the bravado of people hurtling themselves into the water from nearby Jump Rock.
In winter, it is an entirely different place. The winter surf break at Waimea Bay was key to the development of big wave surfing and the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau honours the legendary surfer and the North Shore’s first lifeguard. The competition is only held when the waves are bigger than six metres.
An entirely more low-key option is a walk through Waimea Valley, which is deeply rooted in Hawaiian history and culture. It contains one of the finest collections of Polynesian plants in existence. It was also the location of traditional taro, banana and sweet potato patches and several fishing shrines, agricultural terraces and living sites can still be seen. There is a pretty waterfall at the end of the valley.
Another highlight, closer to Haleiwa, is the turtle sanctuary at Laniakea Beach. More than a dozen turtles call this cove home as they love to feed on the limu seaweed on the rocky headland. Local turtle conservation volunteers monitor the beach to ensure no one touches them but you are free to swim in the clear warm water where the turtles often glide right past you. The day we are here two turtles haul themselves onto the beach for a serious sunbaking session. Luckily they didn’t need sunscreen, like we did.
I know there are lots of other cool adventures out there on Oahu. Please let me know what your favorites are.
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